Can We End the Privatization of Seeds?

Over a decade ago, Dollars & Sense published the article “Genetic Engineering and the Privatization of Seeds,” by Anuradha Mittal and Peter Rossett, on genetic modification and its impact on the world food system (March/April 2001). In it, the authors asked, “will biotechnology feed the world?” while providing an overview of the landscape of corporate control, widening inequality, private property claims, and growing farmers’ resistance around the world. This article acts as a follow-up, highlighting some of the key developments in recent years.

For most of history, farmers have had control over their seeds: saving, sharing, and replanting them with freedom. Developments in the course of the 20th century, however, have greatly eroded this autonomy. Legal changes, ranging from the Plant Variety Protection Act (1970) in the United States to the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), have systematically eroded farmers’ rights to save seeds for future use. By the end of 2012, Monsanto had sued 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in the United States for patent infringement, winning over $23 million in settlements. Here, we describe some of the key developments further intensifying corporate control over the food system. It is not, however, all bleak news. Civil society groups are using everything from grassroots protest to open-source licensing to ensure that the enclosure and privatization of seeds comes to an end.

Corporations Have Consolidated Their Control of Seeds and Agrochemicals

In 2011, just four transnational agri-businesses–Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer, Syngenta, and Vilmorin (Groupe Limagrain)–controlled 58% of the commercial seed market. Four–Syngenta, Bayer CropScience, BASF, and Dow AgroSciences–controlled 62% of agrochemicals worldwide. The top six companies controlled 75% of all private plant breeding research, 60% of commercial seed sales, and 76% of the global agrochemical market. This consolidation of power has been aided by a large string of mergers and acquisitions, leading the Canada-based Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) to conclude that “there just aren’t many seed companies left to buy.”

The World Bank, too, has played a role in this increased consolidation. In 2014, a report from the Oakland Institute provided details on the World Bank’s efforts to open African markets to private seed companies.

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